Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Crossing Borders: A Feminist History of "Women Cross DMZ"

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Crossing Borders: A Feminist History of "Women Cross DMZ"

Article excerpt

The division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945 by the United States and the Soviet Union led to the creation of two separate states, setting the stage for an all-out civil war in 1950 that became an international conflict. After nearly four million people were killed, the United Nations Command, represented by North Korea, China, and the United States, signed a ceasefire agreement in 1953 that halted fighting. The agreement called for a political conference within three months to reach a peace settlement. Over sixty years later, we are still waiting.

Citizen initiatives can help reinvigorate the peace process. On May 24, 2015, thirty women peacemakers from fifteen nations attempted just that. These women, including American feminist activist Gloria Steinem and two Nobel Peace laureates, Mairead Maguire from Northern Ireland and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, crossed across the two-mile wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the Women's Peace Walk ("Peace Walk"). On the seventieth anniversary of Korea's division, they called for a formal end to the Korean War and peaceful reunification. To renew the call for a peace settlement, the peacemakers, known as Women Cross DMZ, offered a people-to-people model of international engagement. The group organized peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul, where women shared their experiences of mobilizing to end violent conflict. In order to get from Pyongyang to Seoul, participants crossed the DMZ - which separates millions of Korean families - as a reminder that division can be overcome. Women Cross DMZ, through a feminist lens, brought into focus yet another reason to address the unresolved Korean conflict: its inordinate impact on women and girls.

The divided state of the Korean Peninsula heightens the militarization and masculinization of society, prioritizing military and national security over social welfare and human security. One striking example of the impact of the current division on Korean women can be seen from the disproportionately large number of women among North Korean refugees, topping 80 percent this year.1 Furthermore, according to estimates by aid workers, 80 to 90 percent of female refugees from North Korea are trafficking victims.2 Such gendered analysis gendered analysis highlights the experiences of women and girls in armed conflict and militarized societies, providing crucial insights into the day-to-day consequences of the ongoing war on women.

To be clear, women are neither "natural" victims nor peacemakers; women are no better suited than men to work for peace. This is true despite the common misunderstanding that advocating women's participation in the peace process relies on essentialized gender roles that characterize women as natural pacifists. Women have become icons of peacemaking insofar as the vast majority of caretakers in contemporary times are women3: that is, the domestic and the caretaking space consigned to many women is precisely the sphere most disrupted by violence and war. Thus, through their call for the "valorization of everyday life," women are able to draw attention to the disruption and violence caused by war and militarism.4

The goal of the Peace Walk was to call attention to the need to formally end the Korean War and reunite long-separated families through the full participation of women in the peace process. As an organizing committee member of Women Cross DMZ and a historian of modern Korea, I situate the Peace Walk within the broader history of the global women's peace movement, address the subtle forms of sexism embedded in the critical reaction to the Peace Walk, and reflect upon the experience specifically from a feminist standpoint.

One constructive definition of feminism is "the belief that women and men are, and have been, treated differently by our society and that women have frequently and systematically been unable to participate fully in all social arenas and institutions; and that this desire gives a 'new' pointof-view on society. …

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